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Laurence S. Moss (1944-2009): Academic Iconoclast, Economist and Magician

Author(s):Ho, Widdy S.
Reviewer(s):Holt, Richard P.F.

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Widdy S. Ho, Laurence S. Moss (1944-2009): Academic Iconoclast, Economist and Magician, 2010. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.? ix + 673 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4443-3556-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard P.F. Holt, Department of Economics, Southern Oregon University.

Widdy Ho?s thorough and thoughtful editorial volume, which covers many interesting aspects of Larry Moss?s rich and intellectual life, Laurence S. Moss (1944-2009): Academic Iconoclast, Economist and Magician, brought to mind the obituary about George Bernard Shaw?s life published on November 2, 1950 in The Times.? It began by saying: ?He addressed himself habitually to the intellect … yet he was a master of comedy, and however … satirical or deliberately outrageous his opinions he was able to treat the driest or most delicate subject with a gaiety that disarmed and with a witty lucidity that entertained … delightedly pulling important legs and pricking portentous bubbles with, on the whole, such stimulating and diverting effect …? (Brunskill, p. 123).

Like Shaw, Larry knew how to prick ?portentous bubbles? and like Shaw he was also an iconoclast. Larry was generally able to pull this off by not antagonizing his foes but winning them over. His charm, humor and wit led one to appreciate his intellectual depth and integrity. This is brought out very well in James Ahiakpor?s introductory essay that gives us an excellent biographical sketch of Larry?s life, and also in the first section of the book titled ?Remembrance and Appreciation Roundtable.? The first section has 13 essays by colleagues and friends. What stands out in these memories is first, the personal and intellectual respect that so many of his colleagues had for Larry and second, their appreciation and awe of his inquisitive nature. That nature led him over a large and wide intellectual and cultural landscape, into which he ventured with an honest and open spirit.? But as he looked over this landscape he did not accept things simply as they appeared. He was not afraid to point out logical or moral inconsistencies of what was seen but not questioned. From Mark Tomass? essay: ?It may seem paradoxical that while Larry practiced magic, he was outraged by deceit, whether in the form of self-deception or deception of others. When Larry was around, you would know that the emperor would not walk without clothes for long? (pp. 136-137).

Larry?s encouragement and search for views that were different from his own is well known among many in the profession. But as these essays show he did this with an intellectual twist that said a lot about Larry. In his discussions with others he was not interested in winning an argument, but in the quality of the arguments. Because of this commitment (or what Larry called a ?promise? to the truth) you would find him often making the arguments of those that disagreed with him stronger than his own! This approach is very different from someone who is a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue. If Larry was a dyed-in-the-wool anything, it was trying to find out what the truth is and what are the best arguments, though he was not shy in letting you know his views. He insisted on speaking his mind without being overly concerned with stepping on people?s toes, but he always did this with an understanding that he could be wrong (and then apologize later with his big grin for stepping on your toes). Dave Colander captures this well in his essay when he says that Larry was one of the ?good guys? that we should admire. ?Being a good guy involves more than being willing to attack conventional wisdom. … A good guy must also have the ability to treat himself as a fire hydrant as well? (pp. 45-46). In this regard Larry truly was a good guy.

An example of Larry?s way of arguing (or discussing) scholarly differences with colleagues comes out in Warren Samuels thoughtful and insightful essay, ?Larry Moss: 1944-2009.?? It consists primarily of correspondence between Samuels and Larry on a variety of topics including the ?meaning of coordination,? ?The Henry George Theorem,? and ?The Legal-Economic Nexus.? Before Samuels shares the correspondence between them, he provides an excellent section in his essay ?On Criticism and Its Structure and Flow? where he defines the role criticism in intellectual history.? As Samuels points out Larry?s approach to economic ideas is through the ?domain of criticism? (p. 93). The letters show this and how Larry worked as a scholar. Each of his letters is thought provoking, showing a complete grasp of the literature and the historical, philosophical and economic arguments surrounding the issues under discussion, while at the same time not giving up in his criticism of each idea and position taken.

The three papers in section two of the book ?Arguing Economics: In Memory of Laurence Moss? in many ways carry out this method of critical intellectual inquiry that we find in Larry?s work. Patrik Aspers, David Levy and Sandra Peart, and Yuichi Shionoya take on topics that Larry was interested in and examine their topics with the candor and scholarly respect of what I call the ?Moss approach.?? By this, I mean looking at any topic or subject through a wide and comprehensive intellectual lens that includes the use of history, sociology and philosophy along with economic analysis.

The third section of the book is titled ?Laurence Moss: Magician, Lawyer, Professor.? Here we have three short essays by David Allen, Richard McMahon and Barbara Wong that show another part of Larry?s professional life — his role as a lawyer and as a magician. As you would expect the reason for his law degree (which he got by taking night courses at Suffolk University while still teaching full time at Babson College) was not to make a lot of money. Instead, Larry is known for his volunteer work for the Massachusetts Pro Bono Legal Services and for his commitment to social justice. All this is consistent with the passion for individual rights, civil liberties and constitutional rights that we find in his academic writings. Larry was not satisfied with just being an ?armchair? intellectual, he could get absolutely outraged when he saw someone being treated unfairly. He would not hesitate to take up the ?red? flag in protest, or in Larry?s case the ?libertarian? flag. This is brought out in Karen Vaughn?s wonderful and well-written essay ?Moss as a Young Scholar,? in the first section of the book.???

The final and fourth section of the book titled ?Selected Works of Laurence Moss? consists of 16 academic papers written between 1973 and 2005. Though the focus is on history of economic thought and Austrian economics, it includes a wide variety of topics that interested Larry over his career. Going from lesser-known economists such as Isaac Butt and Mountifort Longfield to giants such as Ricardo and Hayek, his scholarship always has the highest standard no matter who or what the topic is being investigated. I also found his notes in all his articles to have twists and turns of bits of information that provided insights and occasional humor. They also showed his ability to synthesize a large range of knowledge and disciplines that gave clarity and insights to the text of his article. The amount that he read and researched for a particular article from the very the beginning of his publishing career to the end humbles me.?? Larry?s writings reflect his admirable desire to set the record straight, giving credit and recognition where it is due but often overlooked by others. This is well illustrated in his article, ?Playing Fast and Loose with the Facts about the Writings of Malthus and the Classical School.?

From my conversations with Larry, it was never quite clear to me how much he adhered to Austrian economics or whether he was in fact a neoclassical economist who took what he wanted from the Austrian school to support his arguments. He was very critical of the radical subjectivism and the indifference that some Austrians showed to neoclassical equilibrium analysis and mainstream formalization. But in many ways these essays answer the question I posed above.? Larry Moss pitched his tent in the Austrian camp, but being Larry, he pitched it with his own twist — and independence. He appreciated the rich intellectual history of the Austrians, their emphasis on institutions, and their looking at economic analysis as a dynamic process rather than a static interaction. Individuals, such as entrepreneurs, play a critical role in an ever-changing environment with limited information. A good example of this is the excellent article he wrote with Karen Vaughn, ?Hayek?s Ricardo Effect: A Second Look.? In it they use Hayek?s version of the Ricardo effect theorem as a way of contrasting Hayek?s process of adjustment from one coordinated state of equilibrium to another with the mainstream version of adjustment.
One area where I think that Larry?s work has been underestimated is with much of the cutting edge work that is being done in economics today. A careful reading of his works shows glimpses of anticipating the importance of evolutionary game theory, of how institutions are integrated into economic analysis, of the role of psychological economics in redefining rationality, and of the use of complexity theory as a way of how to conceive general equilibrium analysis.? I hope that future scholars will look more carefully at his work on these topics. A good place to start is the thorough list of Larry?s writings in Appendix I of this book. (There is also a copy of Larry?s syllabus in Appendix II on ?Scams and Frauds in Business? and Appendix III ?Typical Day Sheet for Each Class,? which provides an insight into his teaching style and the rigor and seriousness he took to teaching his classes.)

However, what really strikes me in Larry?s writings is the influence of Ludwig von Mises — not just in his philosophical and economic views, but in the standard for being an intellectual.? Larry was too independent to indulge in hero worship of anyone, but the wide intellectual approach of Mises was the approach that Larry took also. This meant using all the disciplines in the social sciences (plus philosophy, linguistics, the natural sciences, etc.) when engaging in scholarly work. Hayek said of Mises: ?When in the realm of the social sciences I look for similar figures in the history of thought, I do not find them among the professors, not even in Adam Smith; instead, he must be compared to thinkers like Voltaire or Montesquieu, Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.? This in many ways captures Larry?s academic goals and inspirations that started when he was a young man living in New York City who was inspired to be a honest scholar, which he achieved and carried for the rest of his life and passed on to his students and many of his colleagues.

I. Brunskill, editor (2005) The Times Great Lives: A Century in Obituaries (London, UK: Times Books).

Ric Holt is professor of economics at Southern Oregon University. He has authored, co-authored or edited a number of books including A New Guide to Post Keynesian Economics with Steven Pressman (Routledge, 2001) and the prize-winning, The Changing Face of Economics (University of Michigan Press, 2004) with Dave Colander and Barkley Rosser, Jr. He has also published over fifty articles and book reviews in a variety of academic journals. He is presently working on an edited volume of selective letters by John K. Galbraith.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII